46 animal deaths & a suicide belatedly impelled anti-regulation politicians to regulate
ZANESVILLE, Ohio––Six years after exotic animal collector Terry Thompson, of Zanesville, Ohio, released 56 lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, wolves, bears and monkeys before committing suicide on October 18, 2011, “Ohio no longer has a reputation as a state with lax animal laws,” recently wrote Laura A. Bischoff of the Dayton Daily News’ Columbus bureau.
“State officials quickly seized on the Zanesville incident to enact strict regulations on the private ownership of dangerous wild animals and restricted snakes,” Bischoff continued.
“As a result of a law signed by Governor John Kasich on June 5, 2012, owners had to register and micro-chip their animals, and meet strict standards on housing, training, transportation, insurance and enclosures.”
Kasich had undone similar requirements
True enough, but Kasich had been elected on an anti-regulatory platform, and all of this might have been over Kasich’s politically dead body if Thompson had kept his animals caged, awakening the voters to a long overlooked public safety issue.
Muskingum County Sheriff Matt Lutz on the evening of October 18, 2011 reluctantly ordered his deputies to kill 18 tigers, 17 African lions, six black bears, two grizzly bears, two wolves, and a baboon, 46 of the 56 escaped animals in all, because he believed that the circumstances under which they were running loose––including a failed attempt to shut some of them back in their breached cages––left no other options.
Reported Zanesville Times Recorder staff writer Hannah Sparling, “Sam Kopchak, 64, was walking his horse Red back to his barn when he noticed a group of about 30 horses on Thompson’s property acting strange, he said. He looked a little closer and saw they were running from a bear. Then, Kopchak turned around and saw a male African lion standing about 30 feet from him and Red. The only thing separating them was a 4-or 5-foot wire fence, he said.
Ran for the barn & called his mother
Kopchak “made a beeline toward my barn,” he told Sparling. Kopchak called his mother, who called the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office recognized the location: they had often before responded to escapes from Thompson’s Muskingum County Animal Farm. Thompson had been warned repeatedly since 2004 to improve security at the farm, but had ignored the warnings. Previously, however, loose animals were captured without further incident.
“Lutz and his deputies thought they were dealing with just a couple of animals,” wrote Josh Jarman of the Columbus Dispatch. “Their initial concern was that school buses were still on the road locally, and traffic was heavy with people driving home from work.”
“The deputies realized that the situation was more than just another escape,” Associated Press pieced together from their incident reports a week later, “when they saw Terry Thompson’s body lying near his cages. The deputies could not approach to determine whether Thompson was alive because a white tiger appeared to be eating the body,” the deputies reported. “Most of the cages were unlocked, with holes cut in the fencing.”
Meant to feed himself to the animals
Preliminary autopsy findings obtained by the Columbus Dispatch showed that Thompson had scattered chicken parts around himself, apparently to attract the large carnivores, put the barrel of a handgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Muskingum County sheriff’s deputy Jonathan Merry, the second deputy to reach the scene, drove to the Kopchak farm, but had no sooner knocked on the door than he saw a 130-pound gray wolf running from the Thompson property. Merry radioed for instructions.
Lutz told him not to let the wolf escape into the countryside.
Merry shot the wolf before the wolf could reach the tree line, then drove to Thompson’s driveway to meet the other responding deputies as they arrived.
“Cornered lion” was a black bear
“He was told that a lion was cornered at the Thompson home, but it turned out to be a black bear,” wrote Zanesville Times Recorder staff writer Kathy Thompson, not related to Terry Thompson.
Recounted Merry, “I got out of my car, and the bear came charging at me.” Using his sidearm, because he had no time to grab the rifle, “I shot the bear about seven feet away from me,” Merry said.
“Merry turned around to see a lioness scoot under the livestock fence and run south on Kopchak Road,” Thompson wrote.
Only one deputy had a rifle
Wrote Jarman, “As the only officer there with a rifle, Merry was ordered to shoot any animal who left the property. In the next few minutes, Merry killed the lioness, a mountain lion who followed her, and a male African lion that he saw in the driveway of a property next door. The second lion didn’t come from the same part of the fence as the other animals who had slipped through.
“As more deputies and Sheriff Lutz arrived on the scene, Merry was ordered to take his cruiser and rifle down to I-70 to keep animals from escaping into the highway. When he got there, he noticed that a section of fence along the interstate had been knocked down. On the freeway side of the fence was another gray wolf. Merry shot the wolf, two male African lions, a Bengal tiger and a grizzly bear who all would have made their way into traffic.”
Attempt made to capture animals
Efforts were made to capture animals instead of shooting them. “A tiger and a black bear were in the same enclosure,” Associated Press said, “but the door was unlocked and open.”
Deputy Jay Lawhorne said that a lion came within three feet of an auxiliary deputy who tried to close the cage door before seeing that the cage had been cut.
Altogether, 25 animals were shot within the first hour and sixteen minutes after the Muskingum County sheriff s office received the first call that animals were loose.
Eventually, wrote Jarman, “The deputies were assisted by the Highway Patrol, authorities from the Columbus Zoo and The Wilds, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the county Emergency Management Agency, and township fire department. A plan to bring in a helicopter with a thermal-imaging camera to find animals was scuttled by stormy weather.”
Tranquilizer dart failed
Barb Wolfe, DVM, arrived from The Wilds with a tranquilizer gun. She darted a tiger. “But he became extremely aggressive,” Wolfe told Kathy Thompson. “He turned and ran off,” capable of running for five or ten minutes before dropping, even if the tranquilizer dart took effect, “and we knew we would have to shoot him. The deputies couldn’t take any chances with him.”
Lamented Columbus Zoo associate veterinarian Gwen Myers, “We were unable to tranquilize any of the animals.” Besides trying to work in an uncontrolled setting, without fences to contain the animals and enable veterinarians to dart animals in relative safety, Myers explained, the vets did not know the weights of the animals or when they last ate. Thus there was little way to guesstimate the drug doses needed to drop each animal.
Cages could no longer be used
Muskingum County sheriff’s deputies shot another 24 animals during the night. Terry Thompson had cut the wire cages so that most could no longer be used, but Good Morning America reported that food baits were placed in the cages that remained secure to try to lure animals back. Only six animals were captured alive and taken to the Columbus Zoo for safekeeping. A monkey, never found, was believed to have been eaten by one of the big cats.
Among the first experts to reach the scene was Columbus Zoo director emeritus Jack Hanna, who had attended nearby Muskingum University in New Concord.
Said Hanna in an October 23, 2011 talk at the Kirkland Fine Arts Center in Decatur, Illinois, as reported by Decatur Herald-Review staff writer Jim Vorel, “They had three tranquilizer guns on scene. With an hour of daylight left, I couldn’t have done anything different even if I had 50 tranquilizer guns. We’d heard about the animal owner [Terry Thompson] before, but in Ohio, there are a lot like him because there were no laws to prevent it.
“Never thought it could happen here”
“I never thought anything like this could ever happen here, Hanna told an earlier media conference.”
But there was historical irony in Hanna’s comment. Hanna between 1976 and 1990 clashed repeatedly with Steve Graham, director of the Detroit Zoo from 1981 to 1990, over the ethics of selling surplus zoo animals to private dealers. Graham, previously director of the Antietam Humane Society in Pennsylvania, favored killing animals rather than taking the chance that they might end up at hunting ranches, roadside zoos, or badly kept private collections.
Hanna maintained a no-kill policy, but at least five times between 1986 and 1990 the Columbus Zoo sold animals to dealers who resold them to inappropriate destinations, as exposed in January 1990 by CBS 60 Minutes.
Was armed tax resistor
After the Zanesville incident, practically everyone agreed that Thompson should never have had his animal collection in the first place.
“Before that,” recalled Randy Ludlow of the Columbus Dispatch, “Thompson was a Vietnam veteran, pilot, admirer of vintage firearms, and a businessman, who at his death reportedly owed more than $68,000 in unpaid liens and taxes, but for more than seven years fended off complaints about how he fed and housed the animals.”
Thompson bought a lion cub for his wife Marian as a birthday present in 1977. They bought the 73-acre Muskingum County Animal Farm property in 1987.
Sold guns & motorcycles
As the Thompsons’ animal collection grew, Terry Thompson sold guns and motorcycles, flew errands in light aircraft, and collected roadkill to keep the animals fed. Marian Thompson reportedly gave riding lessons.
“The Muskingum County Animal Farm was not open to visitors,” wrote Andrew Welsh Huggins and Ann Sanner of Associated Press, “but Terry Thompson would occasionally take some of the smaller animals to nearby pet shows or nursing homes. He also provided a big cat for a photo shoot with supermodel Heidi Klum and appeared on the Rachael Ray Show in 2008 as an animal handler for a zoologist guest.”
Despite all that, neighbors complained that the Thompsons’ animals were inadequately fed. In 2005, after three cows and a bison were found dead of alleged starvation on another property that Terry Thompson owned, “he was convicted in Muskingum County Municipal Court of cruelty to animals, having an animal at large, and two counts of rendering animal waste without a license,” Ludlow wrote. “Terry Thompson was put on house arrest for six months and paid a $2,870 fine in that case,” Ludlow recalled.
133 firearms seized
Terry Thompson reportedly paid off the mortgage on 46 acres of the Muskingum County Animal Farm in 2007 and sold it to a coal company for $500,000, but apparently retained the right to continue to live there and keep his animals there until the coal company wanted to use the land.
Meanwhile Terry Thompson allowed his federal permit to sell guns to lapse. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms in June 2008 seized 133 firearms from the Thompsons’ home, including five unregistered automatic weapons and three sawed-off shotguns and rifles with serial numbers filed off. Terry Thompson claimed to have inherited the weapons from his father. He denied ever having any involvement in hunting.
Cages without roofs
The investigators found “cages without roofs, cages secured by plastic ties and other makeshift methods, and in some cases, relatively lightweight dog kennels were used to secure lions and tigers,” reported Rene Lynch of the Los Angeles Times.
“Lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, wolves, leopards and mountain lions lacked food, water and shade, and were living in unsanitary conditions in cages caked with layers of urine and feces. In some cases, animals were living alongside rotting carcasses,” Lynch summarized.
“The cages were so tight that the animals, particularly tigers and lions, could not get sufficient exercise. Pens were located right alongside each other, causing stress and anxiety for the animals.
“Lion cubs showed signs of bow-leggedness due to malnutrition, a mountain lion suffered tremors, and there was sewage and standing water in the bears’ pen. Injuries in need of treatment included a cut over a bear’s eye, a horse with an injured leg, and lesions on a lion’s hips. There had been at least three dozen complaints since 2004 about Thompson’s exotic menagerie––including a giraffe grazing by a highway and a monkey in a tree,” Lynch recounted.
Animals remained while owner was in prison
Despite all that, the animals remained on the site in Marian Thompson’s care while Terry Thompson served 366 days in prison for the firearms offenses.
Seven animals who survived the shooting on October 19, 2011 were transported to the Columbus Zoo. But only a quarantine order kept the animals there when Marian Thompson sought to reclaim them.
Why didn’t Kasich act?
The most important question left to be asked afterward was why Governor Kasich not only failed to implement a 90-day executive order issued by previous Governor Ted Strickland, which would have prohibited the possession or sale of such animals pending the passage of anticipated legislation, but allowed the Strickland order to lapse on April 6, 2011 without introducing any other mechanism for controlling traffic in exotic and dangerous wildlife.
Strickland issued the 90-day order only hours before leaving office, keeping a promise made in June 2010 to the Humane Society of the U.S. and other members of the Ohioans for Humane Legislation coalition, to help convince the coalition to withdraw a ballot initiative on farmed animal welfare.
Deal with HSUS
Sponsored chiefly by HSUS, supported by petition signatures from more than half a million Ohio voters, the initiative would have required the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board to ban lifelong confinement of veal calves, breeding sows, and laying hens. The initiative would also have required that downed pigs and cattle must be euthanized by methods approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, and would have banned transporting downed cows and calves to slaughter for human consumption.
Strickland made several other promises to HSUS, but in the end he left office before any of them were kept.
Widely understood was that Kasich, a Republican, would be unlikely to keep promises made by Strickland, a Democrat. Not expected was that Kasich would replace the Strickland executive order pertaining to dangerous exotic animals with nothing.
Eventually, after passage of the 2012 law that Kasich signed, the Ohio Department of Agriculture built a $3 million temporary animal holding facility for impounded dangerous and exotic animals east of Columbus, “and has since spent more than $3.6 million to house, feed, transport and care for the animals housed there,” wrote Bischoff of the Dayton Daily News.
“Since it opened in early 2013,” Bischoff said, “the Reynoldsburg facility has held 207 confiscated or surrendered wild animals, including 107 American alligators, 39 snakes, 18 black bears, 16 tigers, seven brown bears, and five cougars. The building includes 30 large animal enclosures for bears, big cats and others, as well as a snake and reptile room,” all held under tight security.
The precautions are not only to prevent escapes, but also to thwart attempts by owners to recover impounded animals, some of whom may have been used as “couriers” for drugs smuggled in their stomachs, or may have been used as accessories in violent crimes.